Coaching success is very hard to predict. The guy who kills the interview may be a bust in the locker room. The guy with the great resume might not be a good fit in a new environment. The guy with the terrific game plan may not be able to make adjustments at halftime. The brilliant strategist may have no people skills. And the big-time winner may be a cheater.
I hired and fired a lot of coaches during my career, and I was wrong as often as I was right.
My finest moment came back in December of 1976 when I was right about Bill Walsh, casting the deciding vote on the Stanford search committee when we picked him—by one vote—over USC assistant Paul Hackett.
I bring this up because two rather interesting hires have been made in recent days in the state of Mississippi.
Two men with lots of wins on their resumes, but who’ve been dogged by controversy throughout their careers, were hired as the head football coaches at Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Both men have great offensive minds. But if you’re looking for character and integrity, look again.
Mike Leach was hired yesterday at Mississippi State. Leach’s name had come up often in recent years for various positions because of the excellent job he did at Washington State, a tough place to win, but he was often passed over. Let me suggest why.
I’ve been around Leach several times and have talked with him at length on a couple of occasions. He is a very strange dude. He has a pirate obsession. He goes off on rants about school mascots. He’s abrasive in media interviews. He extolls wacko right-wing conspiracy theories. He once asked WSU fans to protest against his former school, Texas Tech, because of an ongoing contract dispute.
I have never seen the man smile.
While at Texas Tech, Leach reportedly mistreated a player with a concussion and punished another player by putting him in an equipment tent, which eventually led to his dismissal.
This year at WSU he called a reporter a “sanctimonious troll” and instructed him to “live your meager life in your little hole and write nasty things.” More importantly, he threw his players under the bus after a one-sided loss, accusing them of folding when things got tough and calling them “fat and dumb and happy and entitled.” At that point, he lost the locker room and the team went on to a disappointing 6-7 season.
But he did accomplish one thing by leaving WSU: he won’t have to lose to UW every year.
In Mississippi, Leach will join another renegade coach. Lane Kiffin—he of Oakland Raiders, University of Tennessee and USC fame (or perhaps infamy)—is the new head man at Ole Miss.
Kiffin, you'll recall, was the boy wonder (31 years old) that Raiders’ boss Al Davis hired in 2007 and then fired over the telephone early in his second season. Davis, who frequently referred to Kiffin as "Lance" instead of "Lane," sacked him after winning only five of 20 gams and called him a "flat out liar."
Kiffin next was hired by Tennessee, at 33 the youngest coach in major college football, signing a six-year deal. But he lasted only a year with the Vols, posting a 7-6 record before fleeing to USC.
His tenure in Knoxville was marked by controversy, as he accused then Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating and was later cited himself for a number of NCAA rules transgressions, earning him the nickname “Lane Violation.”
On the recruiting trail, Kiffin told five-star prospect Alshon Jeffery that he'd end up "pumping gas the rest of his life" if he went to South Carolina. Jeffery ignored him, signed with SC, was a second round pick and has enjoyed a fine career with the Eagles.
Kiffin’s quick departure from Tennessee caused a ruckus in Knoxville, as students rioted and blocked the entrance to the Athletic Department. He reportedly escaped in the middle of the night.
Greener pastures supposedly awaited at USC. However, Kiffin's USC tenure was also a disaster. Three games into his fourth season, he was fired on the tarmac at LA Airport at 3 o’clock in the morning by Athletic Director Pat Haden.
Kiffin resurfaced at Alabama, where he became offensive coordinator, before landing the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic in 2016. Although he signed a 10-year deal with FAU, the over-under on how long he would stay in Boca Raton was two years. He ended up having three successful years before bolting to Mississippi, where the competition will be much tougher.
These two characters—Leach and Kiffin—will presumably sell a lot of tickets and get a lot of media coverage, much of it unfavorable.
From my personal knowledge of both men, all I can say is, they deserve each other. Football fans and athletic administrators at both schools should brace themselves for what will ultimately be a disappointing ride.